Of Pain and place
Close to Home
They met at Victory Hospital back in August 1962. My mother had just given birth to me, but owing to problems during the delivery, she needed to be hospitalized for more than a week after I was born. One of her roommates was Rita Grady, who was expecting a son of her own. Although they lived in the same Brooklyn neighborhood, the two women didn't know each other but quickly became friends. When Rita's sister would visit, she'd offer back rubs to both Rita and my mother. And even after Rita gave birth to her child, Chris, and left the hospital, she'd still call my mom's room to see how she was doing. "We kept in touch a little bit after I came home," my mother recalls, "but we never got together the way we wanted to."
A few years later, my mother was waiting in line inside the auditorium of St. Patrick's Elementary School to enroll me in kindergarten when she spotted Rita Grady waiting to sign up Chris for the same class. "I tapped her on the shoulder, and we became friends again," she remembers. And naturally Chris and I became friends. We went through elementary school together. His dad, Donald, was one of the Little League coaches.
Chris was a great ballplayer. I was lousy.
Read related New Times stories
We went our separate ways in high school, but our moms remained friends. Every so often, when I would talk to my mother on the phone, she'd suddenly interrupt the conversation with a burst of energy. "Oh, I saw Mrs. Grady the other day ...," she'd begin, and then I'd hear the latest news on Chris. That's how I learned that Chris's father had died and, a few years ago, that Chris had gotten married.
Typically this is the way news travels in my old neighborhood of Bay Ridge. And whenever I would hear an update from my mother or my sister on one of my childhood friends, I couldn't help but think about the small-town nature of this big-city neighborhood where generations of large families have lived for years -- the Mayroses, the Olivers, the Cappellinis, the Abdallahs, and, yes, the Gradys. My sister's husband is close friends with Chris's two younger brothers, Patrick and Brendan. If I thought about it, I could easily find another dozen ways in which the lives of all these families are connected. That's just the way Bay Ridge is.
It's probably been fifteen or twenty years since I've actually spoken to Chris Grady. But when my sister called last week to tell me that Chris, who works in the World Trade Center, was missing, that time disappeared, and I was surprised by how it hit me.
My muscles became weak, my arms grew heavy, and I could feel my body slump forward. I was suddenly very tired. I'd been watching the images of destruction for more than a day on television, and through it all I'd managed to remain relatively detached, more stunned than horrified. But no more.
"It's so sad," my sister kept saying.
Chris was working for the brokerage firm of Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the north tower when the first plane struck. Fire engulfed the floors just below him, and smoke filled the stairwells and offices around him. Unsure what to do, Chris called his father-in-law, a retired captain in the New York City Fire Department, for advice. His father-in-law told him to wet a towel or some clothing, use it to cover his head, and try to breathe through it. He told him to stay calm and try to make it to one of the exits.
That was the last anyone heard from Chris. His sister, who was working in the other tower, made it out safely. As I mentioned earlier, Chris was married a few years ago. I learned last week that he and his wife, Kelly, have two young children.
Two days after the towers collapsed, Chris's family printed up flyers with his picture and vital statistics and delivered them to area hospitals hoping for a miracle. And then, knowing that such miracles are unlikely, they drove Chris's medical records to a makeshift morgue in lower Manhattan in case authorities need them to make an identification.
Chris's wife sent along his hairbrush; the strands of hair within the brush may be needed for a DNA sample. More than 5000 people are now missing from the World Trade Center, including 700 employees of the New York office of Cantor Fitzgerald. "Every time you pick up the phone," my sister tells me, "it seems like you hear about another friend, another neighbor who is missing."
We now know the plane that slammed into the first tower was almost certainly flown by Mohammed Atta, who trained for this unimaginable evil on a flight simulator in Opa-locka. Suddenly the world seems so small.
As a child, my vision of the world consisted of nothing more than my neighborhood and the families within it. Then I grew up and decided that "the world" actually consisted of everything outside the old neighborhood, that in effect, the world was out there, beyond the borders of Bay Ridge. Now I'm not so sure where I stand. And today my footing seems uncertain.
As my thoughts remain with Chris and his family, I can't help but think of some of my own relatives. I was watching one of the local television stations interview the South Florida neighbors of one of the suspected hijackers, and the reporter asked, "Was there anything suspicious about this person?"
"Well," the neighbor replied, "they were Arabic."
I'm an Arab. Or at least part of me is. My maternal grandfather's parents came to the United States around the turn of the last century from the Middle East. My great-grandfather, Rashid Eadeh, came here from Ramallah, in the West Bank, about ten miles north of Jerusalem. His wife, Jamelia, was born in Damascus, Syria.
They initially settled in Cleveland, where my grandfather was born, and then moved to New York around 1920. My grandfather spoke both English and Arabic, a beautiful language I wish I had taken the time to learn from him. Because my father's parents (the Sicilian side of the family, where I get the name DeFede) died when I was young, most holidays and special occasions were spent with my mother's parents, and that usually meant feasts of Middle Eastern food.
I'm not sure why being Arab is synonymous with being suspicious. Nor am I sure why any news station would see fit to promote that idea. The most suspicious thing my grandfather used to do was force me to wake up before sunrise on Saturday mornings so we could get to the golf course early enough to be in the first foursome of the day, and so he could take advantage of his early-bird senior discount card.
These are dark, somber days in which we are now living. There is no need to make them worse by demonizing entire groups of people.
Finally it's hard to picture New York without those twin towers. My Uncle Ralph was a plumber who helped build them back in the Seventies. In the Eighties my mother spent five years working for the phone company in the south tower. And since the early Nineties, my brother-in-law has worked in the Merrill Lynch building across from the towers.
A few days ago my sister told me she was afraid to go outside. She wasn't fearful of further terrorist attacks. She just couldn't imagine stepping outside her apartment building in Brooklyn, looking out across the water to Manhattan and seeing a gap in the skyline. "There is always going to be a hole there," she says. "I mean, a piece of us is gone."
--By Jim DeFede
NYC, September 13-15
Years ago my girlfriend Molissa Fenley, the anti-ballerina, and I used to walk from White Street in Tribeca, where we were staying, down to West Broadway at Vesey. She loved the surreal height of 1 & 2 Trade Center, the north and south towers, the strange graphite hardness of the financial symbols thrusting into the sky like postmodern pyramids; they reminded her, she said, of life and death, and she later choreographed a dance -- "Feral" -- based on the feelings they inspired.
We'd come out of the quiet, low-roofed nineteenth-century streets of lower Manhattan into the awful magnificence that the square of the World Trade Center really was -- laser-lined buildings of adamantine brilliance around a fountain that dwarfed human scale. Everything about the place suggested astral travel, the triumph of technology, the puniness of individuals -- it was a little like being in Houston.
I hadn't visited WTC since the Eighties, and when, last Thursday, a reporter I knew at the Village Voice broke his sacred vowels and lent me his NYPD police credentials while he went home to shower and change after three days of combat duty, squirreling through the pumice-colored dust of what is left of the place, I was shocked to find that scale still intact. Only now, there is a Jurassic quality. The awesome fountain was buried under alkaline layers of shredded paper and powdered mortar -- simulated volcanic ash from the overground and underground fires that were still popping and smoldering Thursday night, making everyone -- cops, firemen, medical personnel -- and reporters look like Dust Bowl Okies; the WTC square resembled the scooped-out carcass of some movie Tyrannosaur now, with dreadful serrated steel rib cages -- the twisted rebar that held up the walls of 1 & 2 towers until 8:46 a.m., September 11.
I'd eluded the National Guard, deployed across lower Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River, by rolling into the scene on a fire truck from the Eddystone, Pennsylvania, volunteer company, talking things over with Ali Erbugri, a fireman of Middle Eastern extraction. "I wanted to do something," he told me. "A lot of my brothers are getting it." He was also aware of the rising prejudice against Arabs, or "Middle Easterners," gas stations operated by Pakistanis in Eddystone having already come under rock and spray-paint attack ("Death to ragheads!"), and Ali was showing, by his presence, that he was an American, too.
Eddystone FD dropped me near the corner of Church and Duane, and I started down to 125 Worth Street, where I knew a doctor who was moving ice packs, tracheotomy tubes, IV fluid setups, and bandages into the Board of Health building, scant blocks from the fallen WTC; relief workers were beginning to call ground zero "the Pit" because so few victims were coming out alive.
I couldn't find my doctor friend but met a guy, Charlie, who was heaving boxes in an old-fashioned fire-brigade line, and crying. He said he'd been in the Holocaust in Germany and the sirens, fires, and people holding up cardboard signs with photos of lost loved ones and scrawled cell-phone numbers was too reminiscent of his ruined youth. "I'm reliving my life," he bawled. "Sirens, bombs, sirens! It doesn't stop ... Screaming ... We couldn't find anybody then, either ... You young people don't remember ... We moved from Germany to Israel -- more bombs and madness ... and now you've got it, too!"
There were 50 refrigerated trucks on Liberty and Broadway, waiting for the dead, and the teleprompters set up all around ground zero showed Ernie Anastos of Channel 2, imparting the news that 30,000 body bags were on the scene. (By Saturday, gratefully, there were 25,000 left unfilled.) Toward midnight clouds rolled in, and by Friday morning, thunderstorms had turned the dust into slick cement.
President Bush is the same size as Rudy Giuliani, the medieval hawk-face mayor of New York, but if anything, the mayor looked more presidential. Giuliani spoke in humbled terms of the sacrifices his firemen and cops were making (369 dead or missing); it was as if his own cancer diagnosis last year had knocked the cowboy out of him. This was not the case with Bush. He swaggered to the mike in his tan golf jacket, without a hardhat, as if making up for his Air Force One flights to Louisiana and Nebraska on attack day. He pointed importantly at various peaks and creaking crags in the shifting rubble around him, where yellow and blue helmets teetered on, searching in the background, oblivious to his speech, while TV focused tightly on the smallish crew paying attention. "I can hear you," Bush said gravely into his bullhorn. "The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."
Despite the polls, those I talked to weren't so intent on revenge. Glen Ray, who'd been on the scene for three days, searching for survivors, finally pulled a fireman out: "I reached down a hole there, and felt a scratching on my hand." Paul DiMartini kept complaining that "they won't let me dig. They say they've got enough guys." Anthony Fischetti, who'd been working since Tuesday, said he hadn't found any whole bodies yet. "They're gonna haveta go to dentals and DNA," he murmured sorrowfully. "I saw a hand. I found part of a torso, but you weren't sure, you know? It was exactly the same color as the stone and shit. I just kept thinking: Who does this belong to? Somebody's father or brother before the bomb hit...."
TV rhetoric and the president's fiery declaration that Western civilization is in a state of war were beginning to take effect. The American and United Airlines planes that had hit the twin towers were now, officially, "bombs." The AA flight that cracked the Pentagon was a "missile." The United flight, U-turning on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border and crashing near Pittsburgh, was surely headed for Camp David, or the White House, or Air Force One. By Friday's Day of Remembering, real pain was being recycled into mediaspeak, as Dan Rather imitated Walter Cronkite, and Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Jim Baker, and George Bush, Sr., presumably advised the president in the mysteries of statesmanship.
By Saturday the rescue workers still weren't finding much, and people were writing their own epitaphs and hieroglyphs on the dirty fenders and windows of cars and rescue vehicles: On 31st Street on the West Side, near Ladder Company 24, which lost its whole first squad the first day, someone had scrawled Renab, you will be missed. Next to that it said: Father Mychal lives 4-ever. (Father Mike Judge of the Catholic church across the street was caught in the debris when the south tower collapsed.) Then it said: Stay strong and Fear no evil.
Curiously, as you moved south, back toward WTC, the graffiti grew more probative and lyrical, cave inscriptions for the 21st Century: At Fourteenth and Fifth someone had spray-painted Osama mon amour on a used-clothing store window; smeared in pink lipstick on the hood of a pearl-white Audi TT parked on Washington Square North near MacDougal was the message: God instructs the heart by pains and contradictions; a single word, one I'd first seen in the Eighties, adorned the regular "artists' graffito" space at West Broadway and Grand Street, Militarize; and at ground zero, taped Vietnam-style to the white hardhat of a shockingly beautiful young woman rescue worker who said she was a Ford model, was this: Nuke till you Puke.
On Saturday night the U.S. dead and missing count was 4972; the terrorist list hadn't yet begun.
--By John Lombardi
At 1:15 a.m. last Saturday, the fear unleashed from the kamikaze jetliners was still resonating in the windowless studio at WVUM-FM (90.5), the University of Miami's radio station. A lanky, dark-haired 22-year-old with long pointy sideburns stood nervously before the soundboard and prepared to speak into the microphone. He wore jeans and a long-sleeve shirt with the words "Cult Leader" embroidered above one pocket and "Bomb Squad" above the other. "This is DJ Mother Goose," he began. "Actually, uh, now I'm DJ Muslim in light of, uh, what's been going on up north. I'd like to begin tonight's program with the Islamic call to prayer." He swallowed audibly, put his index fingers to his temples, and then began a mournful melodic droning, in Arabic.
"God is great. God is great. I bear witness that there is no God but God. I bear witness that Muhammed is a messenger of God. Come to prayer. Come to success."
"Wasn't that beautiful?" DJ Muslim asked his listeners politely. "I thought so anyway," he answered himself. He faded out the mike and punched on "One More Teardrop," a song from altrockers Summer Hymns. As the song played, he rushed to gather a few more CDs. "Oh boy, this is killer. Number five: No More Fear.'"
DJ Muslim is Fawad Siddiqui, communications major, UM newspaper reporter, and Hialeah native. He is a U.S. citizen -- technically a Pakistani American. His parents moved from Karachi to Miami in 1974. His father, Hamid, a long-time Republican, operates a soil-testing company with county contracts.
"I would like to get through the whole night without a hate crime," Fawad said quietly into the mike. "And then I'd like to get credit for it, or maybe like a plaque or a street named after me in Little Havana. 'Cuz it would be so weird having a DJ Muslim Street in Little Havana."
On top of the horror of watching the attacks on television, another kind of fear closed in on Fawad on September 11. He recalled an account of a pregnant Muslim woman who was beaten up after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. "That report was going through my head all day," he said. He thought of other assaults on Arabs and Muslims by his fellow citizens in 1995 after the bombing in Oklahoma City.
So he began his own little jihad to spread the word of Islam and defend freedom of speech. "You have all these ideals swimming around in your head that you were taught when you were a kid," he said. "Like, First Amendment, First Amendment, First Amendment...."
His first stop was a mosque in Pompano Beach where leaders from Islamic Communities of South Florida, a regional Muslim association, were to hold a news conference. To a small group of reporters they condemned the previous day's attacks as "vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism against innocent civilians."
The press briefing was over by the time Fawad pulled into the parking lot in his parents' beige Lexus SUV, which bears an "I [heart] Islam" bumper sticker. But he managed to educate a couple of reporters. The word Islam, for example, translates as "peaceful submission to God." The guy who leads the prayer service is an imam, not a minister.
At about 4:00 p.m. Fawad sat at a Miami Subs. He wore a white T-shirt with ISLAM emblazoned across the chest. Next to his tray was an empty, plastic one-gallon gasoline container. He had run out of gas on his way back from Pompano and enlisted a few men to push the SUV into the parking lot. A Miami cop in the next booth noticed the container and asked him if he was insane.
"He was cool, though," Fawad reported later. "He said, Look, you have a beautiful religion. I have friends who are Pakistani. But people are crazy out there today.'" The officer put the container under the table. "Don't you think that would raise more suspicions, though, if it looked like I was hiding a gas container under the table?" Fawad wondered.
Fawad was still hoping the hijackers weren't Muslims. But the American in him is suspicious. "I've been so brainwashed by the media that when they say terrorist,' I think Muslim," he said.
On a piece of paper, Fawad created a chart to represent Islam's four major schools of thought: Hanafi, Malaki, Shafi, and Hambli. This urge to proselytize comes from an Islamic obligation called dawah. And Fawad will dawah your ear off about Islam. It all started, he explained, when the angel Gabriel told the Koran to the prophet Muhammed, who was illiterate but had a great memory. Muhammed told the Koran to others, who wrote it down. From there Islam branched into the schools of thought, each linked to a geographical location....
And to illustrate how the majority of Islam's followers are peaceful, he draws an inverted pyramid. Muslims in general are along the top; the violent ones are down at the peak, with Osama bin Laden occupying the tip. "Bin Laden thinks there should be no schools of thought," he remarked.
Fawad shared the inverted-pyramid idea with a Cuban-American friend, who had jokingly called him a towel-head and a terrorist long before Tuesday. "He said the United States was going to pound that pyramid so far into the earth that Osama bin Laden would end up in Hell," Fawad chuckled. He was pretty sure his friend was kidding.
Later that evening Fawad paid a visit to the Muslim Student Organization's dingy four-room facility on campus. He likes the fact that he can walk into any Islamic center or mosque and be received as a brother by total strangers. At the same time, he is hiding his animosity toward the puritanical and authoritarian tendencies of the guys who run the MSO.
Just inside the door, snacks are for sale. The walls are white, the carpet in the prayer room is two-toned dull green. A room in back has a desk and a computer. One wall is filled with cassettes containing lectures by Islamic scholars. Two barefoot students were there, a stocky Kuwaiti with a long, combed black beard, and a gangly Moroccan man with a fuzzy brown beard. The Kuwaiti put his index fingers together and then pulled them away. "There is no connection with Islam," he declared, referring to the destruction. "That is bad. That is terrorism."
They told Fawad that earlier, UM president Donna Shalala (who is of Lebanese descent) met with Muslim students and told them to report any hostile calls or queries from FBI agents.
In the prayer room, Fawad noted with disapproval that his sisters do not feel welcome at the MSO.
He showed New Times how to pray, explaining that when kneeling with head to the ground, one is closest to God. Then he performed the ritual in earnest; it was his fifth and last of the day. On a whiteboard behind him someone had written an excerpt from the Koran: Whatever happens to us is the will of God. On his way back across campus, he shared his belief that Jews control the UM administration and that he doesn't feel completely comfortable expressing his pro-Palestinian views. As Fawad walked along South Dixie Highway, a man shouted something unintelligible at him from passing car. "Oh, my first comment," he muttered.
Fawad and his father were relaxing after returning home from the 183rd Street mosque where the imam, a Syrian-American electrical engineer named Abdul Hamid Samra, delivered the Friday-afternoon sermon. "Even if somebody is trying to harm you, trying to attack you," he had told about 100 men and a few women separated in a curtained-off area, "try to avoid this in a peaceful way." The Koran forbids the killing of innocents. If you kill one, you kill everyone.
"This is a shameful act!" exclaimed Fawad's father in his Urdu-inflected English, thrusting his hands toward a huge television. "These people must be punished," he added. But he believes the United States should refrain from the widespread bombing of Afghanistan or other countries because innocent people would be killed.
The previous day federal agents had knocked on the door of Hamid Siddiqui's Hialeah office. Fawad's 27-year-old brother Asad, who has an architectural engineering degree from the University of Texas, also was there. The agents apparently had received a tip that a shipment of explosives had arrived at the family-run company. "They asked us: Do you have any bombs?'" recounted Asad. "We said, No, but we have soil-density testing machines.' They asked, Can we take a look at 'em'?" Asad said the agents left cordially after inspecting the machines.
Fawad, Asad, their 26-year-old sister Fatima, and 51-year-old mother Meena watched live coverage of President Bush's trip to the WTC site. "They are nut cases," declared Meena, referring to the hijackers. "I have anger for those who have committed this act. I want something to happen to them." But, she noted, "more suffering in the world, we don't want it."
Asad and Fawad concur with the "nut cases" description. But they also think the policies of their own nation are partly to blame.
"That did not even cross my mind," protested Fatima, her face surrounded by a large, creamy yellow scarf covering her hair and draping over her torso. "All I could think was, What kind of idiot would do this?" Fawad shook his head. "She's a girl. What does she know?" he joked. "She's oppressed. She has a thing on her head."
The song "An Instant Death" had just ended when DJ Muslim repeated one of his themes for the third time that night. "The homework assignment is to open up your encyclopedia and read the entry on Islam," he said. "I'm a little shaken, can you tell?" Then he told his listeners that he was going to continue his holy war to spread peace and love through South Florida.
--By Kirk Nielsen
They say we were taken completely off guard.
Since suicide hijackers bombed the World Trade Center and Pentagon, government officials have repeated in media reports that the country had been caught completely by surprise. U.S. intelligence officials have declared that they knew terror was planned but expected assaults on American interests in Europe -- not in New York City and Washington, D.C.
The truth, however, may be more complicated. While federal authorities likely had no intimate knowledge of the attack beforehand, the Federal Aviation Administration did warn top airline and airport security personnel of a "potential hijacking threat in the eastern United States" on December 8, 1998. An alert that was sent to aviation officials on a strict "need-to-know" basis states the FAA had "received information that unidentified individuals, who are associated with a terrorist organization, may be planning a hijacking at a metropolitan airport in the eastern United States."
That terrorist organization, the document indicates, may well have been al Qaeda, which is run by Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the New York and D.C. attacks. "We believe the threat is current," officials wrote in the alert. "There is a general increase in tensions in the Middle East, as well as the potential for retaliation for U.S. cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan, and the FAA recommends a high degree of vigilance."
Those missile strikes were ordered on August 20, 1998, by former President Bill Clinton and aimed at bin Laden in retaliation for the suicide bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Thirty members of bin Laden's organization were reportedly killed, but the prime target was missed.
FAA south regional spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen refuses to comment on the two-page alert, officially called an "information circular," which expired January 31, 1999. "We don't discuss specific security measures," says Bergen, adding that even she isn't authorized to see FAA-issued alerts. "We have a lot of information that we give airports and airlines on a need-to-know basis. We don't want to give any perpetrators any suggestion of what we might be doing."
All FAA information circulars, which number an estimated fifteen to twenty per year, are restricted from public view by law. Unlike FAA's "security directives," which have more-specific information on threats and demand certain security measures by air carriers and ports, circulars make no direct order. They are distributed to airlines' corporate security directors, senior management officials, and other security personnel. Managers and "security elements" at airports are also notified. At the bottom of the circular, in bold print, is written: "For Use by Aviation Security Personnel Only. Unauthorized Dissemination of This Document or Information Contained Herein Is Prohibited."
A confidential source in the federal government supplied New Times with the document last week because the source felt that the FAA and intelligence community were being disingenuous when expressing total surprise that domestic airliners had been hijacked. "That alert should have changed the way the airlines were doing business, but it did nothing," says the source, who has worked in various airports across South Florida. "I think they are covering their asses by saying they didn't know anything about this."
It is unknown whether the 1998 alert was directly related to last Tuesday's disaster. It has been widely speculated that the attack had been planned for more than two years, though information from the current FBI investigation seems to indicate that a concerted effort by the hijackers didn't begin on American soil until mid-2000. The seeds of the plot, according to The Washington Post, seem to date back to November 1998, when two of the suspected hijackers, Mohammed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, formed a terrorist cell in Hamburg, Germany. Two of the other suspected hijackers, Hani Hanjour and Waleed Alshehri, attended flight schools in the United States in 1997.
Since the disaster, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has given no clue that the FAA knew of any terrorist hijacking threat on the East Coast or anywhere else. "Our national transportation system has become a target," Mineta said Sunday during a press conference. "This past week requires a new system ... that will move passengers safely and efficiently."
Veteran aviation security consultant Marvin Badler says the FAA's information circulars are all too often virtually ignored by the airlines and airports. Badler, who lives in Boca Raton and is a former head of security for El Al Israel Airlines, was unaware of the 1998 East Coast threat. "That document should have been taken a lot more seriously than it seems to have been taken," he says. "But if they would have started with a higher level of security that has always been needed, then nobody would have to listen to alert notifications in the first place."
Rarely has any FAA alert surfaced publicly. After EgyptAir flight 990 crashed off the East Coast in 1999, the Associated Press obtained an information circular warning that a bomb would be "used" on a flight departing from Los Angeles or New York. Although the EgyptAir disaster is still under investigation, no evidence has been found to indicate that a bomb was on board. In 1989 an FAA circular warning that three Palestinians were planning a hijacking of an American aircraft in Western Europe was leaked to a London newspaper, causing much controversy about whether citizens have a right to know when a credible threat is made against airlines or airports. A congressional subcommittee met after the 1989 leak to discuss whether the public should be informed of aviation threats, but there ultimately was no change; FAA alerts remain a secret today.
Badler says that, while the secrecy may have helped the airlines avoid accountability for their woeful security levels, he agrees that terrorist threats shouldn't be made public. "They would produce panic, and people wouldn't want to fly," he says, adding that U.S. intelligence would also be compromised. "We can't live like that."
--By Bob Norman
Gregory Lujan squirted a ribbon of ketchup and then mustard onto his French fries. Because the countertop of Two Guys Restaurant is at eyebrow level for the eight-year-old, he held the red-and-yellow plastic bottles over his head and squeezed. "Everything with ketchup and mustard on it is good," Gregory proclaimed in a loud voice when questioned about the combo. "Well, there you go," commented Two Guys owner Shirley Meadows from the other side of the counter. Arms folded in front of her, Meadows was facing a thirteen-inch television set placed on a barstool at the Overtown take-out restaurant on NW Third Avenue. She was listening to Peter Jennings. Even though no one else in the tiny box of a space could make out what Jennings was saying -- the volume was turned down -- you knew the somber, serious, clipped murmuring was about the World Trade Center.
It was Friday afternoon, and we had all been tethered to the television since Tuesday -- to the voices of news anchors like Jennings, to the footage of the hijacked planes silently piercing those skyscrapers over and over again, to the smoke blooming from them, to the fireballs, to the towers collapsing, one and then the other, the ugly cloud, the people running, the updates, the scenes of the rescuers picking through the mountain of gray rubble. Televisions were turned to news at the grocery store, at the veterinarian, in offices, in restaurants. Gregory noticed that adults standing beside him waiting to order still had their eyes on the screen. "I'll tell you what I think," offered Gregory, practically shouting. "I think the people who flew airplanes into those buildings are boneheads!"
Children watched, too. Gregory's third-grade class turned on the news after the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Now he wanted to escape it. But when he got home from school, his dad was watching. Like other children that Friday afternoon, Gregory said, he wished the adults around him would just stop. He wished there was some way to make it all go away. "Kids, you see," he explained, "they just wish they could watch cartoons again. But they can't. Oh boy. It's always on, on every channel."
"Stop watching it," Eric Meadows kept telling his mother, Shirley. Yet there she was, watching again, when he got to the restaurant Friday after school. "I'm tired of buildings falling down," said Eric. And then the loquacious and precocious five-year-old explained the horror in a circuitous stream of thought that he though had an end, but that he couldn't get to. "I'm tired of buildings falling down," he said. "When buildings fall down, people get hurt. When people get hurt, them get their legs chopped off. And when them get their legs chopped off, the ambulance comes.... And if they have another plane, them better not play with it because them not supposed to play with fire. It's bad for adults. It's bad for kids. It's bad for all the people in this world! Them better not do it again, because if them do it again, the buildings will burn, and if the buildings burn, the buildings will fall down, and then all the people in this world will be dead...."
Gregory placed his fries on a counter against a wall painted with images of the food the restaurant serves: red snapper, hamburger, bowl of beans. He climbed onto a stool and sunk his chin into his hand, watching Eric. "That's right. I just hope, say if the people who did this do get bombed, they won't have anymore evilness in their minds," interrupted Gregory.
"I'm not done yet!" shouted Eric. But then he was gone, off to help his mother bag orders. "Those people who burned those buildings," Gregory added, "when they was little someone told them all these bad things about America."
Like the children in Two Guys, the lives of children all over the United States were pierced on Tuesday. Their generation had been marked. At Booker T. Washington High School, Ronald Wright's first-period journalism class turned on CNN on Tuesday morning and saw the second plane hit. "Everyone was just looking in astonishment," says fifteen-year-old Wright. Before class ended the students wrote a passage about the attack for the school's 2001-2002 yearbook. "Probably every history book from now on will talk about it for a long, long time. For generations," said Wright, waiting at Two Guys for an order of shrimp and fries. "Nothing has ever happened before in America like this. For my generation this is like our Pearl Harbor."
Gregory wasn't worrying about generations, just about his best friend Steven. The pair talk on the telephone daily, Gregory said. Steven's father works in New York City. "I hope his dad wasn't working someplace around the building and that his dad is fine, "Gregory said. "That would make him feel a whole lot better." Gregory stared at the floor, lost in thought. "Oh boy."
Commercial airlines were back in the sky over Miami on Friday afternoon, but it didn't comfort Nerrissa Palmer, age eight. "Everytime I see an airplane I feel scared, and I want my mom and dad," Nerrissa said. She believed they could protect her. "I know nothing is going to happen to me because I have grownups around me; having grownups around me makes me feel secure," she explained.
Gregory felt his bag of fries to see if they were still hot, but he didn't make a move to leave. "A lot of people have been hurt by this," he said again. Every time Gregory spoke, he ended the thought with, "Oh boy," staring into space and looking as though he was falling into a chasm. "Oh boy," he repeated, like he wished he could stop his emotions from tumbling out. Gregory finally explained that he had lost his own mother when he was an infant, and he just felt so sad, thinking about her and thinking about the other children who lost their moms on Tuesday. "I understand," he said softly. "I do. Yes, yes. I understand."
--By Susan Eastman
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.